| Nadezhda Zamotaeva

“I knew about rape before I knew about sex”


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Words: Marina Akhmedova | Images: Oksana Yushko

Nadezhda Zamotaeva, 51, is a psychologist and CEO of the Sisters Center, a refuge for sexual violence survivors in Moscow. In Russia, a country more concerned with family values than domestic violence, the myth of women bearing the responsibility of their assault is commonplace.

What is the role of the Sisters Center today?

The same as 25 years ago. We help those affected by sexual violence, but we’ve tried to stop calling it “sexual violence”. We live in difficult times. The patriarchy has started showing itself again, changing the meaning of the words, especially in the context of law. When a judge hears the words “sexual violence”, they misassociate them. The word “sexual” is extended to all spheres of life in which sex is something normal, but that association is problematic. Many myths are born from this misassociation. The myths state that women should endure [having sex] for five minutes and nothing bad will happen to her. They say that it’s a woman’s fault; that she knew where she was going [to meet a man] and it’s her responsibility because she went there. She’s responsible for what she was wearing. 

That’s how policemen think. They’ll do anything to disregard a statement given by a victim of domestic violence. It’s really difficult for them to accept that something happened when the perpetrator was wearing a condom, or in the most violent cases, when a husband harasses his wife. 

In cases of sex between a husband and wife, is it possible to prove rape? 

Sex should be consensual. But in Russia, there’s an underlying myth that if two lovers fall out, it means their love is being renewed. A husband will drag his beaten wife to the bed. She doesn’t want to [have sex]. He rapes her. He’s not interested in what she wants. He wants to, and that’s enough. Unfortunately our government buys into these myths. 

You said that the patriarchy has started showing itself again. Many independent, educated women voted against the law on domestic violence, and so support the patriarchy [Russia has no legislation on domestic violence. A draft bill was made public in November 2019, but failed to address serious gaps in Russia’s response to domestic violence]. So women are part of the resurgence? 

These women are recruited by the patriarchy. In a patriarchy, relationships can’t be equal. A woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the church. Patriarchal families have a hierarchical structure. The aim of violence is power and control. When dealing with sexual violence, this control is extended to a woman’s body.

“Any kind of violence is a war.”

I’m all for family values, but these days, violence has become a family value. I don’t know what’s going on in the heads of those who protest against the Domestic Violence Bill. Sometimes I wish they could hear our phone conversations with survivors. Then they would understand that they’re shifting the focus and manipulating facts when they use the words “family values”. No, ladies and gentlemen, conflicts and violence are not family values. Come volunteer in our centre and you’ll see women and children who have lost their lives. Their life was stolen from them. 

What are the responsibilities of volunteers in your centre?

We first invited people who could offer consultations on the phone hotline or by email. In 2018, we announced vacancies for volunteer positions, but only 18 out of 100 applications were approved. Training takes a long time. You can’t work on issues of violence if you haven’t worked on your own problems and experiences.

The main principle of our work is trust and equality. We never force victims to seek mental and/or physical help, but we stay close to them. We’re always ready to help the woman and family members make the right choices. Together, we discuss how she can reintegrate into the world. The Sisters Center can’t build a wall around all of us and make up its own rules. We need our government to accept our rules. In the Soviet Union, at least the government declared the principle [of equality between men and women]. And now what happened? Why has the government stopped social care? Why are we ceasing to be citizens? Citizens have rights. People affected by violence are first and foremost citizens, they pay taxes. The government is obliged to help them. 

Could you elaborate on how the state is changing? What made you mention the changes?

The pension reform, first of all. Then the games with prices and inflation. Which social programmes does the government support? I’m talking about programmes Russian society really needs. It’s the government’s fault that men abuse women. And then the government refuses to pay for women’s rehabilitation. 

The government could say: “We’re ready to adopt the Domestic Violence Bill, but you as a society can’t find a consensus.” 

The government is just avoiding the problem. Why does it always do this? It doesn’t seem to avoid issues regarding taxes, rent and costs for us. The government should study the problem of domestic violence, rather than leaving it up to orthodox oligarchs and organisations like Sorok Sorokov [a radical orthodox organisation]. [In doing so], the government gives those people a voice and those people say things like: “Look, they’re going to adopt the law and the next thing you know, they’ll come for you, take your children and give them to gays and lesbians.” 

“I’m not a politician, I’m a practitioner.”

How do you persuade decision-makers that this law is necessary? 

It’s not easy. I’m not a politician, I’m a practitioner. The rules of our organisation state that we’re not allowed to recount stories from our wards, even if we withhold using real names. But every case has the same course of action. The main violence happens when women become pregnant, because they become economically dependent. According to our statistics, only 15% of women who asked us for help filed a complaint to the police. Those 15% are the ones who managed to overcome the awful questioning and investigations. 

Why are you always so emotional when speaking about violence?

I’m emotional because these issues hurt me. Once a week I consult women… 

I’ll tell you about myself, so you can understand why I’m so emotional. When I was three years old, my mother hit my brother. She punished him for not studying well. I was watching. I don’t remember what I felt in that moment, but I gathered all the belts [in the house] and threw them out of the window. 

Did your mother beat you?

She tried, but when I was an adult.

During the Soviet Union, was it normal for parents to beat their children? 

Yes, but those who were beaten need psychological help now. Like me. But if I’m not hurt by the stories from our wards, it means that I’m burnt out and I need to change jobs. I can’t stand violence, neither psychological nor physical. 

Did your husband beat you?

Never. We’ve been together for 30 years, and I was lucky to have met him. In a normal family, you live in harmony. He was my teacher. Once, he told me about hazing [rituals] in the army. I asked him: “Did you ever do it back to people when you got older?” And he said no. I asked him why, and he said he didn’t want to. Such a simple answer. We’re not used to the fact that someone just doesn’t want to. 

Did you hear what that popular TV presenter recently said in an interview? That she’s going to be humble and kiss her husband’s hand every morning. That’s only possible in patriarchal families where the men is at the top of the hierarchy. 

So let’s get back to my earlier question: Why do independent, education women choose patriarchy?

10 years ago, I heard someone say that there are loads of women but fewer jobs, so women should be taken off the labour market. How can they achieve that? Let women give birth as much as possible, let them stay home and give the jobs to their husbands. That’s why [the government] is always crying out: “Give birth more!” on the TV and radio. Give birth to new taxpayers, to cannon fodder. We need them. But the government doesn’t say that we, as citizens, have our rights. I’m not pro-abortions, but I want sexual education in schools that will curb unwanted pregnancies. As for independent, education women, they approve of the patriarchy because they live in a man’s world and they want these men to notice them. 

What law should be adopted in Russia to dramatically improve the status of women?

The Istanbul Convention. We need to sign it. It calls for the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. But Russia still can’t ratify it, because it will bring new fears into [our] society. 

A few years ago, Russia tried to enforce juvenile justice [and the rights of minors] which, in my opinion, was aimed at helping families and children. But what really happened? Institutions just removed kids from their families because these families didn’t have enough food in the fridge. They did it to frighten normal parents. Parents should always be afraid of custody services. 

Do you mean that the government profits from keeping parents at bay? Why?

It is profitable for the government not to implement social programs. They want different groups in society to have conflicts with one another and at the same, not notice that food is becoming more expensive.

Does the Sister Center cooperate with Europe?

Yes, we work with French scientists. They’ve helped us answer the following question: Why do independent women continue to live in systems of domestic violence?

The scientists explained it on a physiological level. A woman gets used to living in chronic stress, and this stress changes her hormonal status. She lives in a war territory, and when she finally leaves it, the war continues within her. The body gets used to producing hormones in response to intense fear. But when she leaves her aggressor, the hormonal status and the woman fight against relapsing. She needs someone near her who will constantly tell her that she’s right. Our French colleagues have been carrying out investigations with survivors of domestic violence. Our country is sanctioned, and these sanctions allow for patriarchal chimeras. Our scientists don’t carry out the same investigations. If it weren’t for our French colleagues, I would have never come across the term “war hormones”. 

Why did you decide to work in the Sisters Center?

My mother played a role in my decision. When I was seven, she told me what rape was. She did it very naturally. I was emotionally traumatised. I was a large girl, and my mother was always scared for me. In telling me this story, she was trying to protect me, to evoke vigilance in me. 

“I had a daughter, and I wanted to protect her from violence in the future.”

Did she use a concrete story?

Yes. When I was a child, a girl was raped by two twin brothers who were hardly much older than her. The boys’ family had experienced domestic violence. So my world was shattered when I was 7. I understood that the same could happen to me. 

When your mother told you about rape, did you already know about sex?

No, I knew nothing. I learned about rape before I learned about sex. In 1994, I was already married and had a daughter of two. I read an article about sexual violence in the newspaper. The article said that, in Europe, there were a lot of centres helping affected women. The article mentioned that a similar centre was to be opened in Moscow, and that it was looking for workers. I called because I had a daughter, and I wanted to protect her from violence in the future. I wanted to change society, make it easier for girls and women. I didn’t want my daughter to even be subjected to verbal violence. I survived it when I was a student. [Eventually,] I was invited to the centre and started working there as a phone consultant. I studied there. They taught us things I’d never learned in university. The main principle of the centre is never to call an affected woman a “victim”. She’s not a victim, she is a survivor. Any kind of violence is a war. A war against one person. The one who started the war is responsible for it. The Sisters Center communicates with friendly organisations, from which we redirect women affected by violence. We speak to a woman as long as she needs, we let her express herself and we advise her on what to do next. 

Why did you become a director of this centre?

I was chosen. The staff of the centre trusted me. For a long time, the centre had another director. Maria Mokhova. I was her assistant. Before, I worked as a consultant. But as an assistant, I combined phone consultations with the coordination of educational programmes. But Marie died… She asked me not to leave the centre. And I didn’t. 

 

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